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The best soul food in Harlem
Harlem’s got soul. Not to mention lots and lots of soul food. Here, soul food (home-style cooking that hails originally from southern, African American communities) is a point of both pride and contention. Quiz any local on their favourite joint and be prepared for a long lecture about who does the crispiest fried chicken, the juiciest ribs, and the fluffiest waffles. But beyond its wonderfully comforting, belly-filling capacities, soul food is also an essential aspect of Harlem’s culture and identity. You better come hungry…
When it comes to renown, no other Harlem restaurant rivals historic Sylvia’s for authentic southern soul food. The eatery has attracted busloads of out-of-towners — as well as plenty of locals — since first opening as an unfussy luncheonette in 1962. Though the crowds can at times be daunting (especially during gospel brunch service on Sundays), don’t let them get in between you and a combination fried chicken and ribs platter, preferably with macaroni and cheese and tender collard greens on the side.
Opened by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson in early 2011, buzzy Red Rooster has drawn celebrity diners ranging from President Obama to Jay-Z. Offering contemporary takes on soul food staples (don’t miss the signature fried yardbird or shrimp and pork belly hot rice), Red Rooster has the additional boon of companion Ginny’s Supper Club, where guests can wander downstairs for live music.
Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too
On the southernmost edge of Harlem, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too is usually packed with students from Columbia University, which is located just a few blocks north, as well as long-time neighbourhood residents. Against an old-school backdrop of chequered red and white floors and laminated tables, diners happily chow down on corn bread, candied yams, and Mamie Jean’s Famous BBQ Chicken. For those further north, sister restaurant Miss Maude’s is another good bet for soul food in Harlem.
Chicken and waffles: one of the great food marriages that still doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Seek to rectify that at Amy Ruth’s, which specialises in this dish — here, it’s called the ‘Rev. Al Sharpton.’ If you really want to expand your waffle-based repertoire, you can also opt for waffles with fried catfish, waffles with rib-eye steak, waffles with fried shrimp, or, for the timid, good old-fashioned waffles with blueberries.
A stand-out among the latest generation of restaurants that are giving soul food in Harlem a contemporary revival, BLVD Bistro seeks to spruce up the staples while leaving their souls intact — be sure to try the fried okra with spicy Creole ketchup and the jumbo shrimp with cheesy grits, all washed down with homebrewed sweet tea. Make no mistake: you’ll be doing some serious indulging here (bacon-topped, seven-cheese mac and cheese, anyone?).
If you’re the kind of person who raises an eyebrow when confronted with a buffet, hold the cynicism: Jacob Restaurant has elevated the format from cruise ship mediocrity and added some winning soul food classics. On Styrofoam platters that are weighed by the pound, diners pile up the jerk chicken, black-eyed peas, yams, and mac and cheese (the latter of which is frequently cited as the neighbourhood’s finest).
Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken
Make no mistake: it isn’t the ambiance of Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken that draws in-the-know locals (including Red Rooster’s Marcus Samuelsson). Host to just a few small tables, it isn’t the kind of place to settle in for a few hours. And yet, all that seems beside the point once you bite into the crispy-juicy-just-generally-perfect fried chicken, which, unsurprisingly, is the house special. Owner Charles Gabriel fries chicken the way his mother used to, and that family prowess is the key to this restaurant’s continued success.
A soul food go-to since opening in 1984, Manna’s now operates four accessible locations across the neighbourhood. Resolutely unfussy and something of a local classic, don’t let its buffet-style serving dissuade. Before tucking into your heaped up platter, note that the banana pudding is worth saving room for.
Thinking of heading to Melba’s? Two words that ought to convince: Eggnog. Waffles. Another vote in its favour: founder Melba Wilson received her training from her Aunt Sylvia (of Sylvia’s fame), making this a proper soul food dynasty spot. Whether you’re after wine-braised short ribs, pecan-crusted tilapia, or those ineffable chicken and eggnog waffles, the dishes here strike the perfect balance between classic and contemporary.
Written by Claire Bullen